4 Republicans battle to replace retiring Rep. Matt Salmon
PHOENIX (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon’s surprise February announcement that he was retiring and endorsing Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs as his replacement was supposed to smooth the way for Biggs to cruse to a primary victory.
Instead, Biggs is battling three other well-known Republicans in next week’s primary election in the GOP-dominated 5th Congressional District. The winner of the primary in the heavily Republican district will almost certainly be the next congressman from the district that covers Gilbert, Queen Creek and parts of Chandler and Mesa southeast of Phoenix.
Leading the challengers with an open checkbook is Christine Jones, a former GoDaddy executive and candidate for governor in 2014 who has pumped $1.6 million of her own cash into the race as of Aug. 10.
By contrast, Biggs has spent less than $500,000, including a $150,000 loan he made to his campaign. He’s also benefited from nearly $560,000 in ads backing him or opposing jones from the conservative Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth.
Rounding out the field are Arizona House Rep. Justin Olson and former Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley. Stapley has nearly matched Biggs’ spending, while Olson lags.
Biggs and Olson are vying for the ultra-conservative vote, running on their strong small-government and anti-abortion records in the Legislature. Stapley touts his background of fiscal restraint as a long-time member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and vows to work with Republican House leadership, while Jones is focusing on her business experience and running as a political outsider.
The district has a large Mormon population, and all but Jones are members of the church.
Biggs points to his record in the Arizona Senate, where he’s led budget negotiations for the past four years, as a plus that can help in Congress.
“You’ve got 10 years where (former speaker) John Boehner and other leaders haven’t been able to pass a budget,” Biggs said this week. “So do you think sending somebody back there who knows how to get a budget out is a bad thing?”
Biggs touts pages of endorsements from elected leaders and groups like the Center for Arizona Policy, an anti-abortion group that has great power in the state Legislature.
Jones is running attack ads against Biggs and Stapley, and she’s been a target of attacks as well. She doesn’t live in the district, and her opponents call her a carpetbagger who’s trying to buy a congressional seat using the riches she accumulated during her years at website hosting firm GoDaddy.
“I’m baffled by Christine Jones’ expenditures, the sheer amount of money she’s pouring into this race,” Stapley said Tuesday. “It appears to anybody with simple common sense that she’s simply trying to buy this race.”
Jones said she may not live in the district but she identifies with the area.
“We do go to church in the Chandler, my husband’s been teaching at Chandler High School for 15 years,” Jones said. “This is the cycle when people are just tired of career politicians, so being the outsider, being the successful business leader really sets me apart,” Jones said.
Stapley, who left county government in 2012 after 18 years, is being slammed in Jones’ ads for accusations that he used cash from a campaign he ran to win a seat on a national county government group for personal gain. Criminal charges were thrown out in that and another case brought by now-disbarred county attorney Andrew Thomas after referrals from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office.
Stapley and other elected officials said they were targeted because they were in legal and political disputes with the sheriff and Thomas over cuts to agency budgets, a plan to build a new court complex and other issues.
Stapley won a $3.5 million settlement from the county over the cases, and said he used the money to pay his legal fees.
He slammed jones for targeting him with the discredited cases.
“They’re totally desperation by her because they’re not true — anybody who was here knows they were not true,” Stapley said. “There was no probable cause for any of this stuff — it’s just outrageous.”
He also slammed Biggs, calling him an “ideologue who won’t work with people,” while pointing to legislation he tried to block expanding health care coverage for poor children. Jones also criticized Biggs for his position on KidsCare, which passed this year over Biggs’ opposition.
Olson said he’s the best candidate because he’s stayed out of the slew of mudslinging and focused on what he can do for the district in Washington. He noted that he worked to allow KidsCare to pass while pushing for changes that would protect taxpayers.
“I think that it’s important to recognize that voters do not want their vote to be purchased,” Olson said. “And I think they recognize that I’ve been running a campaign backed by volunteer support.”
There’s no independent polling available in the district and all four candidates agree the race appears to be very close, with no clear front-runner.
“I think the polls are over the place,” Biggs said. “But we think it’s a close race and we think we’re ahead.”